The tectonic plates of international order are shaking. Political and economic power is shifting away from the United States and European countries as it is redistributed across Asia and Latin America. Rising powers are reconfiguring the landscapes of multilateralism. Countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa are keenly attuned to these transformations in the global architecture and are aware that these changes offer the promise of progress, but also potential instability. Their diplomats are making no secret of their countries' respective intentions to acquire permanent seats in the world’s top multilateral decision-making forum, the United Nations Security Council. It is only by sitting at this table, they argue, that they can influence the most important decision of them all – when and how to intervene in the interests of international peace and security.
There is universal consensus around the world that the United Nations and the Security Council need reforming. Virtually everyone agrees that it is a twentieth century institution ill-equipped to tackle twenty-first century challenges. After all, the Council is a product of the Allied victory during the Second World War. With its permanent members composed exclusively of the victors, the Council today seems not just anachronistic, but also unjust. And with the number of United Nations member states growing from 50 in the 1950s to more than 193 this year, the Council is less representative than ever. The status quo is no longer an option and change is inevitable.
Confronted with global crises ranging from financial collapse to climate change, and such vicious wars as the one in Syria, an effective United Nations is more urgent than ever. Paradoxically, at a time when it is urgently needed, the Council is paralyzed. As a result, it is rapidly losing credibility and risks, according to senior diplomats from Delhi to Brasilia, becoming the architect of its own irrelevance. While there appears to be widespread agreement about “why” reform of the Security Council is needed, there is less consensus over “how” this should be done, much less “who” should benefit from the redistribution of power. As a result, negotiators in the United Nations are stalling, dithering over procedural details rather than tackling the real issues.
Much of the debate on Security Council reform centers on enlarging its permanent membership beyond China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, or the so-called P-5. Calling themselves the G-4, Brazil, together with Germany, India, and Japan are the most vocal pretenders to the throne. Africa too is seeking two permanent seats, though it has yet to agree on its candidates. Meanwhile, regional rivals such as Italy and Pakistan, self-described as “united for consensus”, are frustrating progress. As a result, reforms are frozen. The last time changes occurred was in 1965, when a modest expansion increased the number of non-Permanent members of the Council from six to ten. There was a real prospect of Council enlargement in 2005, but this was put on ice. Even by the glacial standards of multilateral diplomacy, the pace is slow.
Notwithstanding this pessimistic scenario, countries like Brazil have an excellent chance at achieving a permanent seat in the Security Council, if they play their cards right. Brazil certainly has the requisite experience. The largest country in Latin America and one of the world’s largest economies, Brazil has served as a non-permanent member of the Council no fewer than ten times since the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Brazil is also a major troop contributing country to peacekeeping operations, most recently heading up the United Nations peace operations in Haiti. Brazil is also starting to introduce global norms which include the recent “responsibility while protecting” concept. It successfully launched a debate in the United Nations over how to expand the transparency of Security Council decisions and deepen commitments to protect civilians. And with deft diplomacy, the anxieties of regional players such as Argentina and Mexico at Brazil's accession to the Council could be managed.
However, it is unlikely that Brazil will acquire permanent membership to the Security Council if it restricts its focus to technical negotiations inside the United Nations. At a minimum, it needs to leverage its vibrant civil society, including think tanks, businesses, and activist organizations, to engage other actors with the issue of reform. The urgency of Security Council reforms for addressing global peace and security issues must also be loudly debated by the civil societies of the P-5 countries. Rather than concentrating on changes in the form of the Security Council, Brazil and other rising powers should lead a debate on the function of a new, more legitimate and effective body. Brazil’s foreign ministry and civil society could start by setting out a compelling vision for what a reformed Security Council would do differently. The ongoing negotiations in the United Nations are not advancing Brazil’s cause and may be a step backward. These importance of these issues is simply too great for them to be left to negotiators alone.